“Give them a chance, not charity.” – Baba Amte
My Journey to Anandwan
On January 6th, 2009, I boarded Azad Hind Express from Pune Station, heading towards Nagpur. The 15-hour long journey was quite interesting. I was sharing my 3-tier AC compartment with two flirtatious marketing people; a woman and her boss. They looked like they were in their 30’s and both were married (not to each other). From their conversation and the way they were acting, I suspected there was something going on between them. They were apparently returning from a meeting in Pune and often travelled together.
The problem with an AC train is that after dark you cannot look out the window, as you only see your own reflection due to the dark tinted windows. So, at first I had nothing better to do than to overhear their conversation. They were sitting right next to me, and I couldn’t exactly turn off my ears.
I had loaded up my cell phone with some music and I quickly became the official “Train Jockey” – TJ! In India it is fashionable to listen to music on your cell without plugging in the earphones. I got some requests from her to play “In Dino” from the movie Life … In a Metro, as it was her favourite song. After listening to it so many times, I started liking it too. I thought it was interesting that that was her favourite song. Anyone who has seen the movie will know what the song is all about – an affair!
We reached Nagpur at around 9:00 AM on January 7th. Before reaching Nagpur, I asked them how to get to the bus depot from the train station. The lady said the depot is on her way home and she can drop me there. Her boss, clearly, did not approve of this. Indeed, he came up with some excuse and decided to come with us in the same rickshaw. Earlier, they were going to go in separate rickshaws as they were going in different directions. I guess he didn’t trust her!
They let me off at the bus depot and I thanked them for the ride. I offered to pay but they refused to accept. That was very kind of them.
Since it was only around 9:30 AM, I decided to go to a restaurant where I could sit down for a while and enjoy a nice cup of tea. Unfortunately and surprisingly, none of the nearby restaurants offered tea; only lunch, and not even breakfast. I can go without food, but not tea. So I went to a road-side chai-wala and had the best cup of tea money can buy – for only Rs.3! In fact, it was so good that I had to have another round. Nagpur’s weather at that time of the year was very pleasant. My travels have taught me to relish life’s little pleasures. There’s nothing like a refreshing cup of hot tea on a cool day. I think my trek mates can vouch for how much I love tea.
To get to Anandwan from Nagpur, one needs to catch either the Warora- or Chandrapur-bound bus and get down at ‘Anandwan corner’. It takes about two hours from Nagpur. Weather wise, the best time to visit Anandwan is from November to February as the temperatures are tolerable. However, this is also the peak season for visitors, so it is best to contact them in advance and inform them of your plans. Scroll to the bottom for contact information.
I was lugging around a huge see-through plastic bag full of children’s clothes and toys, which I had brought from Toronto to donate at Hemalkasa. The 11:00 AM Chandrapur bus that I was on was practically empty. However, in less than half hour it was full. A lady who worked in a police station sat beside me. She asked me if the toys and clothes in my bag were for sale. I was wishing I didn’t have a see-through bag as I got many strange looks from people.
First Impressions of Anandwan
I reached Anandwan corner at around 1:00 PM and after a short rickshaw ride reached Anandwan. I asked for Mr. Kaustubh Amte but was told that he was away and would return at 3:00 PM. So I decided to get lunch and asked some people if there was a restaurant nearby. I found a restaurant that was run by a leprosy-affected couple. I had delicious zunnka-bhaakar for only Rs.10. At the time I had no idea that Anandwan also had a community mess.
While eating at the restaurant two other people came there for lunch. They had apparently come to Anandwan for some work. I started a conversation with one of them; his name was Santosh Joshi and he worked in the coal mining industry. I casually asked him how I can visit the nearby Tadoba tiger-reserve forest and he gave me detailed information on the route, buses, timings and phone numbers of bus depots. He also gave me his cell and land line numbers and said to contact him any time if I needed help. What a great man! I felt that Anandwan brought out the best in people.
Anandwan is like a little town, complete with its own governance, post office, bank, schools, college, hospitals, homes for senior citizens, farms and many industries. Anandwan literally means “Forest of Joy”. It is a place of joy for thousands who are dependent on it. Baba Amte founded Anandwan in 1951 to treat leprosy-affected people. At the time, Anandwan was an abandoned piece of land outside of Warora, which the government had granted to Baba Amte. Today’s Anandwan is very much different. There is plenty of greenery at Anandwan and its “Green” projects are commendable.
Meeting with Mr. Kaustubh Amte
I met with Kaustubh Amte, grandson of Baba Amte and son of Dr. Vikas Amte, in the afternoon. He was engaged with several other visitors when I met with him. Kaustubh was speaking to them about the many challenges facing Anandwan today from an administrative point of view. At first, he confused me with “Neeraj from Asian Paints”. He said something to me and I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. We cleared up the funny misunderstanding soon enough.
He spoke about some of the government’s ridiculous rules that are applied to non-profit organizations. He also talked about dealing with corrupt officials who make things difficult for Anandwan for not paying them a bribe. It’s amazing to know that some people still expect bribes in spite of knowing the work Anandwan does for society.
I met Kaustubh for a second time when I returned to Anandwan from Hemalkasa with a brother and sister duo who were from Aurangabad. I will write more about these two great young people on my Hemalkasa post, seeing as that is where I met them for the first time. At this point, I will just add that they helped raise more than two lakh rupees (Rs.200,000) for the Hemalkasa project.
Before we departed from Anandwan, Kaustubh arranged a packed dinner for us to have on our long journey home. We insisted that we would get something to eat on the way, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Baba Amte never allowed a guest to leave on an empty stomach, and his grandson was simply following in his footsteps.
After talking to Kaustubh I felt that he has many ideas that he wishes to implement at Anandwan, but he seems to be bogged down by the heavy administrative work load, and a lack of human resources. Anyone volunteering with him at Anandwan would most certainly get some meaningful work done.
Kaustubh introduced me to the beautiful Jidnyasa who had moved to Anandwan approximately six months ago. Her story was tragic, yet awe inspiring. Jidnyasa lived with her parents in Nagpur. She was engaged to be married when tragedy struck. She was diagnosed with a disease that left her completely blind in both eyes. Her fiance called off the engagement and she was obviously heart broken.
Jidnyasa convinced her parents to allow her to move to Anandwan. Having an I.T. educational background, she desired to start an Information Technology Learning Centre at Anandwan and consulted with Kaustubh about it. At first, Kaustubh intentionally did not give her much in terms of encouragement. He wanted her to be very sure and confident that that is what she wanted to do.
Jidnyasa wasn’t one to give up so easily. She worked hard and realized her dream. Of course, she had the full support of Kaustubh. She now teaches computers to blind students at Anandwan’s first ever I.T. Learning Centre, which she started.
I was fortunate to get a tour of the centre with Jidnyasa herself. They have several computer labs with state-of-the-art machines. All computers are installed with special software for the blind. The blind students are taught shortcut keys, using which they can carry out almost any action, usually faster, than the non-blind people who typically use a mouse. The students are also taught MS Office products and other applications.
In India, it is difficult for physically disabled persons to procure employment and lead a fairly independent life. However, blind graduates from Anandwan’s I.T. Learning Centre may fare well in the job market. Companies interested in increasing employee productivity will benefit by hiring blind candidates. Why? Jidnyasa says this is because they tend of take fewer breaks; a non-blind person cannot sit in front of a computer for too long without experiencing fatigue.
Jidnyasa has also started a small call-centre, where the blind can take calls and provide technical support. There are many such inspirational stories at Anandwan. It would be an interesting proposition to write a book on the many personal triumph stories at Anandwan.
Notes from Dr. Vikas Amte’s Talk
Dr. Vikas Amte, the elder son of Baba Amte, is a very engaging and talented speaker. When he speaks, people listen. I had the opportunity to meet with him when I returned to Anandwan after visiting Hemalkasa. Here are my notes from our meeting with him.
Dr. Vikas Amte’s two hours talk was intriguing. What struck as most striking to me was when he proclaimed that he would love to get leprosy! Hypertension, high blood pressure and diabetes, all non-curable and fatal if not treated, are prevalent in India. People have no qualms about declaring in public that they have diabetes or high blood pressure. Then why are leprosy-affected people treated in a morally repugnant way when leprosy is the only curable disease, is never fatal, and does not lead to any physical deformities if treated on time?
Diabetes patients have many diet restrictions. However, there are no such restrictions for leprosy patients. No one is known to have died from leprosy. Thus, having said this, Dr. Vikas Amte got up from his seat and said, “I would love to have leprosy.”
Dr. Amte said all the big film stars and sports personalities appear on government-sponsored ads on television and say that leprosy is curable. However, this has done little to change the society’s perception and attitude towards those affected by leprosy. “We no longer treat leprosy patients at Anandwan, but the normal people,” said Dr. Amte.
No one has yet been able to discover the cause of leprosy. Dr. Amte said he will personally award one crore rupees (Rs.10,000,000) to the person discovering the cause of leprosy. There’s also a Nobel Prize for this century old puzzle. Interestingly, leprosy only affects humans and it has not yet been discovered why this is so.
Today, no one can question the capabilities of the socially ostracized leprosy-affected people. Anandwan has 139 industries all run by those affected by leprosy. Textiles produced at Anandwan are supplied all over Maharashtra. Anandwan was the first to manufacture cheap and sturdy tri-cycles for the disabled. The only thing, Dr. Amte joked, not produced at Anandwan are Oil and Gold!
One thing any visitor to Anandwan will notice right away is its cleanliness. The leprosy-affected inhabitants of Anandwan do everything and nobody tells them what to do. There are garbage bins everywhere (that are emptied regularly); streets are brushed clean everyday; public toilets are kept clean. Dr. Amte said this is because the inhabitants of Anandwan are bound together by a friendship of pain. All residents of Anandwan are in some ways disabled (deaf, blind, mute) or shunned by society. Thus, there is a sense of belonging-ness in Anandwan, where the pain is shared by everyone.
India has the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest toilet after Nepal; millions of people do not have access to a toilet and are forced to defecate in the open. Dr. Amte hopes to change that starting with Anandwan where everyone has access to clean toilets. Dr. Amte has himself cleaned the public toilets at Anandwan on several occasions. In fact, Dr. Amte says he often shows dignitary visitors to Anandwan its public toilets, sometimes much to their displeasure, because he is so proud of that.
In the beginning, when he first took over the reins of Anandwan from Baba Amte, he had several disagreements with Baba with respect to the growth of Anandwan. For example, Dr. Amte had spent many lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of rupees on constructing guest-houses for visitors, which Baba Amte considered as wasteful spending of donation monies. However, Dr. Vikas Amte was a visionary. As the years went by and as awareness on Baba Amte’s work spread, Anandwan started seeing more and more visitors, who, naturally, stayed in one of the many guest-houses that Dr. Amte had built. Recognizing this, Baba later apologized to his son for not understanding him.
Dr. Amte has undertaken many large impressive engineering projects despite being a doctor by profession. He has designed and constructed low-cost dome-roofed buildings, which do not require the use of iron rods. These buildings, which can be used for housing and can be built in a short period of time, are known to withstand even powerful earthquakes that flatten conventional buildings.
It is said that one man’s waste is another man’s treasure. Dr. Amte and his army of leprosy-affected people collect garbage (plastic and glass containers, discarded tires etc) from all over the place and have used it to make “check dams”. Check dams are low-cost and easy-to-build dams, which farmers can use for their water needs, thus shedding their dependency on rainfall. He built several check dams in nearby villages as proof-of-concept. Five years later, the check dams are still standing, while the dams that the government build broke in less than one year! Dr. Amte expressed his disappointment that villagers ask him to build check dams for them instead of learning how to build it themselves. Building check dams does not require any special machinery or skills.
Dr. Amte took off his foot wear and said that Anandwan makes these from discarded airplane tires. These are known to last a long time. His other “Green” initiatives include a bio-gas plant at Anandwan that treats Anandwan’s waste water.
Dr. Amte said he can deploy his army of leprosy-affected people even at midnight in an emergency. His “army” had carried out search and rescue efforts when a devastating earthquake hit a neighbouring region.
Baba Amte had one dream, which was to improve India’s relations with Pakistan. He hoped to do that by visiting Pakistan with an envoy of leprosy-affected people with the message of peace. The idea was that leprosy-affected people from Pakistan would bond with those from India, thus bonding another friendship of pain. Baba even purchased a bus which was to transport them to Pakistan. Pakistan, however, refused to take responsibility for their safety. For Baba, the message of peace was worth the risk. Baba’s dream was eventually shattered when Pakistan refused to issue visas to the leprosy-affected people. Dr. Amte hopes to fulfill Baba’s dream. The bus which was purchased to transport Baba and his envoy to Pakistan is now used as a mobile learning centre.
Who doesn’t know about Mother Teresa? But how many have heard of Baba Amte and his achievements? Unfortunately, the answer is ‘not many’. For example, how many people know that Baba Amte was honoured with the Templeton Prize (US$684,000) in 1990, which is the world’s largest cash prize? Templeton Prize is popularly known as the “Nobel Prize for Religion”. Arguably, Baba Amte has done more for humanity than Mother Teresa has, but who is to blame when the media just didn’t report on Baba’s work?
The Templeton Prize, which Baba was honoured with, is a prize for “Progress in Religion”. Interestingly though, Baba was an atheist and so is his son Dr. Vikas Amte. Dr. Amte spoke about how there are no donations or contributions from the rich temple trusts in India. The reason for this being Baba’s refusal to allow building of any places of worship in Anandwan. He wanted Anandwan to be a place where people from all castes and religions can live together peacefully without religion being a divisive factor in their lives.
There was a time when the so-called “normal” people of society would not even touch anything made by leprosy-affected people. Today, the beautiful handicrafts created by those affected by leprosy have to be kept locked as people have started stealing them! This was the single biggest achievement of Baba’s life – the empowerment of those whom the society rejected as “cursed”.
Anandwan requires ten lakh rupees (Rs.1,000,000 or US$20,000) daily for its operations. Where does the money come from? Fortunately, there are well-wishers who have donated significant amounts to Baba Amte’s Maharogi Sewa Samiti (MSS), the organization that runs Anandwan.
Anandwan used to be self-sufficient at one point with enough food grown in its farms for all its inhabitants, and enough revenue generated by its 139 industries to run the organization. This was Baba’s goal; to be self-sufficient. However, the continuous expansion of Anandwan has led to some financial difficulties.
Baba had a policy of giving refuge to all needy persons who came to Anandwan. No one is turned back. Treatment for leprosy, HIV/AIDS and other ailments, as well as food and housing are provided free of charge for all. Although Anandwan started as a colony for those affected by leprosy, it has grown into a safe haven for all those who have no one to turn to. This policy is still adhered to by the next generation of Amtes. However, this has resulted in a massive demand for new housing and infrastructure, and therefore, a need for more resources.
Rehabilitated leprosy patients have been given the right to marry and have one child. The newly married couple is also given a place to stay in Anandwan with all the basic necessities. Marriage of a leprosy-affected person, despite being cured of the disease, was unheard of in India until Baba started the practice at Anandwan. Baba felt that even leprosy-affected people have a right to a normal life.
Marriages of all inhabitants of Anandwan are held in its community hall free of charge. Dr. Amte’s own son and daughter were also married in the same hall. Dr. Amte said that he has 600 other daughters whom he has to get married. He was referring to the many blind, deaf and mute girls living in Anandwan, who are either studying or working there.
Dr. Amte has now handed over the reins of Anandwan to his son, Kaustubh Amte. Dr. Amte looks after the Somnath project (also started by Baba Amte). Somnath is a medical treatment and rehabilitation project of leprosy-affected people with residential communities. It also serves as the breadbasket of the MSS institution with its agricultural and food grain production on about 400 hectares of land.
The very existence of these projects is now under threat, said Dr. Amte. The government wants to extract coal that is under Anandwan. Somnath, which borders the famous Tadoba tiger-reserve forest, is under threat by the Forest Department, which wants to extend its “buffer zone” into Somnath. Dr. Amte, however, feels that Tadoba has been mismanaged and there is no need for such extension.
It is difficult for us to say how imminent these threats are, but I think what Dr. Amte wanted to impress upon our minds was the challenges the MSS organization is facing today.
Towards the end, Dr. Amte pleaded everyone present at the meeting to be his ambassadors; to spread awareness about the work being done here. He doesn’t want your money, but your goodwill. Baba Amte had a policy of never asking anyone for money, which is still being followed today.
Maharogi Sewa Samiti is the only charitable organization that I know of which does not actively solicit donations. However, this does not mean MSS is flush with cash and it doesn’t need donations. All it means is that people should only open up their wallets if their hearts are kindled by the great service to humanity that is being provided at Anandwan. This would not have been possible without the personal sacrifice of the Amte family.
For more information see the official Anandwan web site.
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